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Medieval Latin literature

Medieval Latin literature, literary works written in the Latin language during the Middle Ages.

The Decline of Rome

With the slow dissolution over centuries of the Roman Empire in the West, Latin writing dwindled and changed like the rest of Roman culture. It was formerly conventional to say that in the 6th cent. the De consolatione philosophiae of Boethius was the last great work of classical Latin and that Boethius' younger contemporary Cassiodorus was the first notable figure of medieval literature (though he wrote in classical form). However, the transition was, in fact, so gradual as to be imperceptible.

One of the main characteristics of the emerging literature was the fundamentally Christian tone; the other was the use of a simpler and more flexible Latin, which drew from the common speech of Rome and the provinces. The Christian tradition had already been firmly established by early Christian writers—St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine—using exact classical language. Notable poets wrote Christian hymns, which, when joined to music and shaped to new poetry with accentual rhythm and rhyme unknown to the classics, became one of the glories of medieval literature.

The Monastic Tradition

From the 6th cent. on, learning was preserved mostly in the monasteries (see monasticism), and almost all writers were clergymen. The Latin used in the Church services, based on the simplified language, was therefore preserved long after all Latin was replaced in common speech by the vernacular tongues. The bulk of prose writing was given over to theological treatises, homilies, sermons, pastoral instructions, and devotional works. Some of it is of great force and beauty, as in writings of St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I).

Sporadic efforts were made to revive classical learning, but these were successful only in promoting learning in general and establishing educational standards. By far the most important was the Carolingian revival in the late 8th and early 9th cent. Charlemagne persuaded an Englishman, Alcuin, to establish a court school. The writers, such as Einhard, were medieval rather than classical in spirit, but the effects of the revival were lasting. The effects of the movement can be found in works of the writers Paul the Deacon, Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, and John Scotus Erigena; the poets Walafrid Strabo and Gottschalk, and Waltharius; and the dramatist Hrotswith von Bandersheim.

Abelard, outstanding theologian and competent poet, was primarily a schoolman and his school was the precursor of the Univ. of Paris, one of the great medieval universities (see colleges and universities). St. Bernard of Clairvaux, vigorous opponent of Abelard, is usually considered one of the greatest of medieval writers. Perhaps more renowned as a theologian than Bernard was the learned St. Anselm, and certainly more vociferous in polemics was Hugh of St. Victor.

Among the mystical writers Richard of St. Victor is ranked by many as a peer of St. Bernard. The volume of writing was steadily growing and was of truly universal Western authorship. Secular poetry and prose were being composed for sheer enjoyment. Chroniclers and historians were found in all lands—Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Matthew Paris, Walter Map, Suger, and William of Tyre are examples—and many monasteries had completely anonymous chronicles such as those of St. Gall.

The Flowering of Medieval Culture

The quality of writing and of scholarship was steadily rising, and the way was being prepared for the great flowering of medieval culture in the 13th cent. Most notable was the full development of scholasticism by St. Bonaventure, St. Albertus Magnus, and St. Thomas Aquinas, together with Duns Scotus, William of Occam, and others. The simple Latin dialogues on the mysteries of Christ's life had become the miracle play.

Secular poetry had since the 11th cent. given rise to well-wrought and exquisitely rhymed lyrics and satires commonly called the Goliardic songs. The type of encyclopedic compendium popular since St. Isidore of Seville's 7th-century Etymologiae was represented by the work of Vincent of Beauvais. The lives of saints were collected in The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. Other genres were also represented in Latin: the mock epic, the fabliau, the romance, the beast tale, the folk story.

The Decline of Medieval Latin

Many literary genres were already being taken over by writing in the vernacular, which had begun in the 10th cent. This advance of the dialects, which were already being formed into the modern European languages, doomed the older "learned" literature. Meanwhile the revival of classical learning and the scholarship of the Renaissance moved to undermine Medieval Latin literature. Dante's precise Latin writing could scarcely be called medieval in its form, and the humanists with their Ciceronian prose and Vergilian eclogues were setting out to destroy, not to reform, Medieval Latin. Except for the persistence of Church Latin, they succeeded.

Bibliography

See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (tr. 1953); F. J. E. Raby, A History of Christian Latin Poetry (2d ed. 1953) and A History of Secular Latin Poetry (2d ed. 1957); W. T. H. Jackson, The Literature of the Middle Ages (1960).

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Latin literature

Latin literature, the literature of ancient Rome and of that written in Latin in later eras.

Very little remains of the ritualistic songs and the native poetry of the Romans and Latins before the rise of a literature. The history of the Roman Empire is fundamental to the fabric of this literature: in the first three centuries of its development, the influence of captive Greece was all-pervasive.

The Development of a Classical Style

The close of the First Punic War (c.240 BC) marks the beginning of literary work in Rome with the plays of the slave Livius Andronicus, adapted from the Greek. The epic poet Gnaeus Naevius also wrote dramas, but he was far surpassed by the greatest of Roman dramatists, Plautus, a master of comedy. In his SatiresEnnius introduced the hexameter into Latin; Cato the Elder opposed the hellenizing group, to which Ennius belonged, and wrote his works in as rude a Latin as possible. However, his efforts had little effect and the works of Terence, Greek in scene and origin, manifest the tremendous interchange of Greek and Latin writing.

The 1st cent. BC, the last era of the Roman republic, produced some of the greatest figures in Latin literature—the encyclopedist Varro, the statesmen and prose masters Cicero and Julius Caesar, the poets Lucretius and Catullus, and the historian Sallust. Vergil, the greatest of Latin epic poets, exemplifies a new atmosphere in the Augustan age, with his celebration—and somber questioning—of the new empire. In his epodes, odes, and satires, the poet Horace brought the Latin lyric to perfection, while the elegy was cultivated by Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. The notable historian of the age was Livy.

Post-classical Literature

During the first half of the 1st cent. AD, Latin literature in its classical form was in decline. The works of Seneca, Lucan, Persius, and Statius typify a period in which the masters, both Latin and Greek, were imitated. Among the most original poets were Martial and Juvenal, celebrated for their satiric writings. Petronius, Frontinus, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger (see under Pliny the Elder), and Tacitus were the chief writers of prose; Suetonius exemplified the richness of historical and biographical writing under the Principate, while Quintilian brought classical literary criticism to its greatest development.

In the 2d cent. Marcus Fronto distinguished himself as an orator; his pupil Marcus Aurelius gained fame both as a ruler and as one of the masters of the Latin essay. In the 3d and 4th cent. the writings of Ausonius and Avienus extended beyond classical studies, developing traditional themes to deal with everyday life and the world of nature. Claudian is considered the best of the late poets. Ammianus Marcellinus was a noted historian. The philological scholars of the empire were numerous. These included Aulus Gellius, Terentianus, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, and Priscian.

As the classical inspiration died, the tradition of Latin literature was borrowed from and carried forward in Christian writing. Prudentius attempted to build a Christian style on classical models, but failed. The Latin language became the standard language of the West and by far the greater bulk of medieval literature as well as records, documents, and letters was written in Latin (see patristic literature; Medieval Latin literature; Roman law).

The Renaissance

The literature of the Renaissance represents a conscious attempt to recapture the classical spirit. Most learned people cultivated Latin, and many of them succeeded in writing a Latin style that stands comparison with classical Latin models. Petrarch, Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini, Poliziano, Pontano, and Pius II were accomplished Latin writers. Erasmus violently attacked the ubiquitous Ciceronianism of the time.

Later Latin Literature

Good Latin poets have been fewer since the Renaissance, but George Buchanan and John Milton are among the exceptions. Among the great scholars whose major works were written in Latin were Thomas More, Baruch Spinoza, Francis Bacon, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and Isaac Newton. Latin literature, as such, is nearly dead, for its cultivation is limited to the ever-narrowing circles of classicists and to the Roman Catholic Church, which adds new matter to the liturgy only rarely and confines use of extraliturgical Latin to official, nonliterary documents.

Bibliography

See J. W. Duff, A Literary History of Rome (3d ed., repr. 1979); E. J. Kenney, ed., Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. II (1982); J. Sullivan, Literature and Politics in the Age of Nero (1985); B. Baldwin, ed., An Anthology of Later Latin Literature (1987).

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"Latin literature." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Latin literature

Latin literature Literature of the Roman Empire. The earliest works date from the 3rd century bc, and were imitations of Greek drama and Greek literature by Livius Andronicus and Naevius. In the 2nd century bc, the influence of Greek drama was adapted to Roman themes by Plautus. The ‘Golden Age’ of Latin literature (c.70 bc–c.ad 14) was heralded in the prose works of Cicero and the poetry of Catullus and Lucretius. The Augustan Age (43 bc–ad 14) produced the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the Aeneid of Virgil, the lyrics of Horace, and the prose histories of Livy. The writings of Pliny (the Elder) marked the reign of Trajan. The so-called ‘Silver Age’ (ad 98–138) saw the tragedies of Seneca, the satires of Juvenal, and the sceptical histories of Tacitus. Generally, Latin literature declined until its revival in the 5th century as the lingua franca of Christian discourse by Saint Augustine. The trend was continued by Boethius and Bede. Latin writers of the Middle Ages included Pierre Abélard, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas à Kempis. Erasmus and Sir Thomas More revived Latin during the age of humanism.

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"Latin literature." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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